Had I owned a copy of Final Draft and not been obsessed with terrible poetry, Bandslam may have been the type of movie I would’ve made when I was 15. Somewhat of a fantasy, Bandslam is about an awkward, outcast kid who’s somehow able to convince two ridiculously gorgeous girls that he’s cool because of his dork-level knowledge of music, despite his complete lack of social skills whatsoever. Even with the illogical nature of this scenario, Bandslam isn’t half as bad as it probably should be.
If you don’t fit the movie’s demographic (something I’ll touch more on later), it’s hard not to enter the theatre with preconceived notions of what Bandslam will be. There will of course be musical numbers, pretty actors and actresses singing songs about acceptance, even though the kids singing them never had to deal with social rejection themselves. It will have a high school filled with 25 year olds and strategically placed minorities. And it will, without a doubt, have Zac Efron.
Surprisingly enough, Bandslam has none of these things. In fact, Bandslam falters by marketing itself to a tween crowd, as if it’s the next High School Musical or Camp Rock. This is neither of those films. Instead, we get Will Burton, a geeky looking kid with a fake afro and a keen taste for music who, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear until later, isn’t very well liked at his Cincinnati school. Pessimistic isn’t exactly the word for him, as he puts it: “My mom says I should start seeing the glass half full, but my problem is I can’t see the glass at all.” Infatuated with bands that run the gamut from The Velvet Underground to Bloc Party, Will could be Rob Gordon’s son (High Fidelity! Netflix? Anyone?).
Will’s mom (played surprisingly well by Lisa Kudrow) gets a job in Jersey, where Will hopes to get a fresh start. There he meets Sa5m (the 5 is silent), a bookish and anti-social girl who speaks with a monotone voice and whose personality reflects that. She tells Will about Bandslam, an end-of-the-year battle of the bands where the winner gets a record deal and a fatty check. With apparently no musical talent of his own, this is pretty irrelevant to Will. That is, until he meets Charlotte, an outgoing senior hottie with a taste in music as eccentric as Will’s and something even better: a band. A band that decides to make Will its manager, as they try to take on The Glory Dogs for the Bandslam title.
With a stronger cast and a more focused script, Bandslam could’ve been a hit, up the same alley as movies like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and School of Rock. Instead, we’re supposed to believe that the girl in sparkly clothes and Ugg boots on The Today Show is an odd bookworm who used to stutter. Many actors are great at hiding their personal lives when onscreen. Vanessa Hudgens isn’t one of them. Alyson Michalka, on the other hand, is far more believable in her role as Charlotte, although when the part calls for more emotional intensity (and oddly enough, it does), she can’t quite pull it off. The heart of the movie, though, is Gaelan Connell, who fits right into his role as Will. Thankfully, rather than go with another flawless Disney actor, the casting director decided to go with a kid that actually looks like a nerd.
Bandslam succeeds by keeping you entertained with a likable lead and what seems like a true love of music. Will adores CBGB’s, the legendary music venue where many say punk was born. He writes letters to David Bowie. He references bands that no tween can possibly be aware of. Will represents a stage in life that all teens go through, one where you’re trying to figure out who you are, so you fixate on something you feel is bigger than you. Some people do it with parties, some with books, and some with sports. Will does it with music.
So even though the movie’s trailers and posters want you to believe you’re about to see Disney’s latest made-for-TV movie, you actually end up watching a decently competent high school romantic comedy. It has heart. It has a few laughs. It even has some decent original songs. But Bandslam could have been more than decent by pushing for the PG-13 crowd rather than the PG one. It could have had better actresses in the lead roles. It could have gone further with its dialogue. It could have been funnier and it could have hit harder.
Instead, we’re left with an alright movie, one that was better than anyone could have expected considering the marketing but one that never really lives up to its potential. It’s a movie that deserves a chance that it will never get because it’s not tween enough for the tween crowd and no self-respecting teenager would go see a movie with Vanessa Hudgens and the chick from Aly&AJ. In spite of these minor errors in marketing, Bandslam is a good (no more, no less) teen flick. In a lot of ways, it's is just like Will, you really want to hate the kid, with his snobby music tastes and nerdy nature, but he’s just so damn sweet it’s almost impossible.